Inside Selda Bağcan’s home in Istanbul’s Tarabya neighbourhood, which overlooks an undulating landscape that seems to have sprouted colourful apartment buildings, bookcases are filled with a collection of cassettes and VHS tapes. Some of the Turkish folk singer-songwriter’s past albums – from a discography that stretches from 1971 to 2016 – are still in their original wrapping, while the labels on VHS tapes, now almost fading, mention recordings like ‘Selda Bağcan – Hollanda TV, 1990’ and ‘2004: TRT 1 – Çalsın Davullar’ (Let the Drums Play). Behind the sofa where Bağcan is sitting is another bookshelf laden with festival passes and awards, which reflect the balcony view of the Istanbul sunset on their polished surfaces.
Dressed in colourful floral print pants and a pink shirt that complements the ripe-peach hue of her short fluffy hair, Bağcan is instantly sincere as she reflects on her more than 45-year career. ‘The stage is a thrilling place – you can end up forgetting the lyrics to songs you’ve been singing for years,’ she says.
Bağcan is one of the only women to have come out of Turkey’s 1960s and 1970s Anatolian rock movement, which fused Turkish folk with rock music and was pioneered by now-legendary figures such as Cem Karaca, Barış Manço and Erkin Koray, among others. In 1971, while she was studying at Ankara University’s science department, Bağcan first broke onto the scene with only a simple guitar in her hand. When her first two singles ‘Katip Arzuhalim Yaz Yare Böyle’ and ‘Tatlı Dillim, Güler Yüzlüm’ sold more than a million copies, she decided to dedicate herself entirely to her music. Bağcan released a string of singles and albums over the next few decades and toured extensively across Europe, making appearances at Bulgaria’s Golden Orfe Festival, Glastonbury Festival and WOMAD. She regularly performed in Germany, often to fans from the country’s large Turkish diaspora, and held a series of free concerts throughout Turkey in 1989 and 1990.
Nowadays, Bağcan continues to perform live. She’s just returned from a performance in Bodrum – a coastal city in southwest Turkey that’s become her second home – and has concerts planned for early 2018 in London and Istanbul. She also runs her own production company Majör Müzik Yapım, through which she releases her music, including the 2016 anthology album ‘40 Yilin 40 Şarkisi’ (‘40 Songs of 40 Years’).
What was the music scene like in Ankara when you began playing in the 1970s and did you feel part of a movement?
When I was young, Ankara was a calm bureaucratic city. Now it’s a city filled with tall buildings. But I’ve been living in Istanbul since the first day of my career, or more specifically since the age of 20. Back then, Turkish folk music was booming and folk songs were being modernised, harmonised and played with different instruments – what we call polyphony. I started with protest music and continued with it my entire life. I don’t think I was part of a movement. I was original, on my own.
But you were part of the Anatolian rock movement in some respect. What drew you to this style?
Anatolian rock was in back then. There were a lot of male Anatolian rock musicians and bands – Cem Karaca, Ersen ve Dadaşlar, Moğollar, Barış Manço – and I played with them. I recorded ‘İnce İnce Bir Kar Yağar’ with Cem Karaca’s band. That’s why we ended up interpreting Turkish folk songs in that particular format, because it was the style of the time.
You’ve been performing live for 46 years now. What’s it like to be on stage?
The first 20 years it was just my guitar and me, and in time I also learned to play the bağlama. It was after my song ‘Yuh Yuh’ became a hit that I realised I couldn’t play it with a guitar, and so I learned how to play the bağlama. But when I started playing with an orchestra, I realised, my God, it’s so much easier! During our tours everyone would go to eat and I would be practicing my instrument and preparing myself for the stage. I only realised later how hard that was – in the moment it was just what I did, it was my job. Of course, the feeling of going on stage is always the same, the excitement is always the same. Your songs have had a revival in recent years, especially among a younger generation.
Why do you think that is?
One reason is that the songs are very different – our folk ballads are very unique to the western ear. Another reason is because they are in the rock format. I think if I sang them in their authentic versions they wouldn’t have become so popular. Up until now, I’ve sung around 400 songs, and a majority are folk songs – some of them are in their original versions, others interpreted through rock and others sung with a symphonic orchestra. I also signed an agreement in 2006 with Finders Keepers Records, and after that my music was sampled and remixed by artists such as Mos Def. Our music culture began to spread around the world and then it came back to Turkey and young people began listening to it. People used to tell me how their parents loved my music, now the parents tell me that their kids love my songs.
What is it specifically about your music that affects people?
My music has remained current. It’s because of the radiance of my voice, and it’s also because of the chosen repertoire. I sing folk songs that are just beautiful, some of them are more than 1,000 years old. Of course, abroad no one knows or understands the lyrics, but they tell me ‘even though we don’t understand what you’re saying, we know what you mean’. What affects them is my voice and the music.
I’ll tell you a story. We gave a concert in the US at a festival at the Lincoln Centre in 2012. I have this song called ‘Oğul’, and I saw this woman crying from the stage. It’s a very dramatic piece and even though she didn’t understand what I was saying she could sense the emotion. It was just me and a musician playing bağlama and that’s enough – the music brings forth the meaning. I performed in Krakòw to an audience of around 40,000 people and after the third song the audience broke out in ovation yelling ‘Selda! Selda!’.
Do you listen to your own songs?
When we do an album we listen to the songs so many times in order to choose a sequence or to edit them, and by the time everything is done we’re pretty restless and don’t listen to them for a while. But after some time has passed, and when I have a bad day, I’ll play my music, and my own voice is able to lift my spirits. I listen to my own music the way others do and that’s really precious. I used to get letters – well, now I get e-mails – but my fans always tell me about this same feeling.
Brownbook, January-February, 2018